A provincial court in Myanmar on Thursday sentenced the head of a weekly newspaper and four of its journalists to 10 years in prison and hard labor for publishing a report that said a vast and secretive Burmese government factory was designed to produce chemical weapons.
Burmese journalists said the jail terms were a major blow to recently won news media freedoms in the country after five decades of censorship and persecution.
The five people sentenced on Thursday in Pakokku Township Court include four reporters and the chief executive of the Unity Journal, which closed in June partly because of the expense related to the case.
“This is injustice,” Unity chief executive U Tint Hsan shouted to reporters as he was led away from the courtroom. “This is an attempt to control the press.”
A lawyer for the journalists was quoted by Burmese news media saying they would appeal the decision. A news media association in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, said it would hold a vigil yesterday at a Buddhist temple for the jailed journalists.
Hard labor was commonly added to prison sentences during military rule, and it includes building roads and digging ditches.
The case comes amid concerns among Burmese journalists that the government, which is led by former military officers, is reverting to tactics of intimidation toward the news media. The Special Branch of the Burmese police force, a unit feared during military rule, has visited the newsrooms of a number of publications in recent weeks and asked to see financial records.
A journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an online Burmese news site, was jailed earlier this year for trespassing and disturbing the work of a civil servant.
“Clearly, real press freedom remains a distant dream for Burma, where the government still gets to decide what is fit to print, and who has the right to inform [or misinform] the public,” said a commentary in the Irrawaddy, a news Web site, after Thursday’s sentences were announced.
Burmese President Thein Sein, who instituted news media reforms and abolished censorship after taking power three years ago, has changed his tone in recent days.
“If media freedoms are used to endanger state security rather than give benefits to the country, I want to announce that effective action will be taken under existing laws,” he said in a nationally broadcast speech on Monday.
The journalists sentenced on Thursday were convicted of violating the Burmese State Secrets Act, a British colonial law dating to the 1920s.
Their report, published in January, quoted workers at the factory, in Pauk in northwestern Myanmar, saying it produced chemical weapons. The report also said Chinese technicians were often seen there.
State news media has said the factory produces “military equipment,” without elaborating. The government has denied that chemical weapons are made there.
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